The Wright Brothers: The Invention of the Aerial Age

Wilbur (right) and Orville (left) Wright / Wikimedia Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 01.06.2017
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

On December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.

December 2003 will mark the 100th Anniversary of this historic and groundbreaking achievement. Learn how two small town businessmen invented a technology that would define the 20th century.

Who Were Wilbur and Orville Wright?

Few great figures in American history are shrouded in more misconceptions than Wilbur and Orville Wright. Their fame and popular stature is extraordinary, but their personal story is largely unknown.

How did two men, working essentially alone and with little formal scientific training, solve a problem so complex and demanding as heavier-than-air flight, which had defied better-known experimenters for centuries?

Certainly the brothers were talented, but the true answer also lies in their background and early experiences. Learn how these seemingly ordinary bicycle mechanics emerged to change the world.

1630: Rooted in America

The Wright’s story in America began when Samuel Wright immigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s.

The Wright family story parallels many threads and movements in American history. The Wrights took part in the initial European settlement of North America, the fight for independence from Great Britain, and the expansion of the young United States on the western frontier.

Wilbur and Orville’s parents and grandparents were active in the major social reform movements of the 19th century: the abolition of slavery, temperance, and women’s rights.

1859-1874: Immediate Family History

Married in 1859, Wilbur and Orville’s parents instilled their children with strong core values.

The importance of family was central to the Wright brothers’ lives and a powerful influence in everything they did. Their father, Milton, was a strong and respected figure in the Wright household. He and his wife, Susan, imbued their children with their core values, which guided Wilbur and Orville’s attitudes and actions.

The Wrights’ parents taught their children that the world was an unfriendly place; unscrupulous persons lay in wait and temptations beckoned. They were convinced that the strength of family bonds offered the only real support in life. Their mutual support enabled the family to weather all manner of crises.

Milton and Susan Wright had seven children, including a set of twins named Otis and Ida, who were born between Wilbur and Orville and died in infancy.

1884: Settling in Dayton

The Wright brothers believed that growing up in Ohio gave them certain advantages in life.

Milton Wright’s appointment as editor of the United Brethren in Christ church newspaper in 1869 first brought him and his family to Dayton, the city his sons would make famous. After several years on the move because of church assignments, Milton Wright and his family returned to Dayton for good in 1884. The Wright brothers lived a happy and contented life in Dayton. They were proud to be from Ohio and believed that growing up there gave them certain advantages in life.

1889: Printing and Newspaper Business

In 1889, the Wright brothers established a close working relationship while publishing The West Side News.

Technology and innovation were part of the Wright brothers’ lives before they began their study of aeronautics. Orville in particular was intrigued by mechanical things as a youngster, always building, fixing, and tinkering. His first serious technical interest and pursuit was printing. He began a printing business as a teenager, in which Wilbur later joined him.

The Wright brothers’ major technical activity before flight was bicycle repair and manufacture. The business not only provided their livelihood, but also funded their aeronautical experiments.

1893: The Wright Cycle Company

In 1893, the Wright brothers opened a small bicycle rental and repair shop.

The bicycle craze in America began in 1887 with the introduction from England of the safety bicycle. The safety, with its two wheels of equal size, was easier to ride than the traditional high-wheel bicycle. It made the freedom of cycling accessible to a much wider market. At the height of the bicycle boom in the 1890s, more than 300 companies were producing over a million bicycles per year.

The Wright brothers’ best known pre-aeronautical occupation was bicycle repair and manufacture.

1895: The Wright Bicycles

Wilbur and Orville decided to manufacture their own line of bicycles in 1895

The Wright Cycle Co. did business in five different locations on the west side of Dayton between 1892 and 1897. The brothers quickly expanded their enterprise from rental and repair to a sales shop carrying more than a dozen brands.

By the mid-1890s, Dayton had more than two dozen bicycle shops. With competition growing stiff, Wilbur and Orville decided to manufacture their own line in 1895 and introduced their first model the following year.

Inventing a Flying Machine

Between 1899 and 1905, the Wright brothers conducted a program of aeronautical research and experimentation that led to the first successful powered airplane in 1903 and a refined, practical flying machine two years later. All successful airplanes since then have incorporated the basic design elements of the 1903 Wright Flyer.

The genius of Wilbur and Orville lay not only in the singular act of getting a flying machine into the air, but also in the approach they evolved and employed to create the technology of flight. Their method of evaluating data gathered by testing an aircraft in flight, then refining the design based on those results, remains an essential tool in aerospace research and development.

1899: Getting Acquainted with Aeronautics

In the 1890s, aviation was a wide-open field of study that provided rich opportunities for investigation.

After collecting reference material from the Smithsonian and other sources, the Wright brothers began studying their predecessors. They were surprised to learn that, despite humanity’s centuries-old interest in flight, little progress had been made in aeronautics before 1800. Until that time, few trained scientists or mechanics thought it a sensible undertaking.

During the 1800s, however, a community of technically trained people interested in flight had evolved. They had amassed a body of aeronautical knowledge that represented the first real steps toward achieving human flight.

1900: Glider Trials at Kitty Hawk

It was one thing to design a small kite, quite another to build a large glider and launch oneself into the air.

The Wrights next began to study aerodynamics and structures in preparation for building their first piloted glider. It was one thing to design a set of wings for a small kite, quite another to build a large, heavy glider, climb aboard, and launch oneself into the air.

The brothers now began to consider such things as the precise curve of the wing profile, the wing area necessary to lift a pilot, and the type of materials needed to construct a glider.

1901: The Biggest Glider Yet

Larger than its predecessor, the 1901 glider suffered from a lack of lift and control problems.

The poor lift performance of their 1900 glider made the Wright brothers question, but not abandon, the aerodynamic data and equations they had relied upon. To increase lift on their next glider, they simply increased the size of the wings and the curvature of the airfoil. They returned to Kitty Hawk in 1901 to test the new glider.

The results were discouraging. Although more and longer free glides were made than in the previous year, the new glider performed worse than the 1900 craft. It still suffered from lack of lift and now had control problems as well.

1902: Close to a True Airplane

The 1902 glider performed dramatically better than its predecessors.

By December 1901, the Wright brothers had accumulated all the aerodynamic data they needed to build a successful flying machine. However, they did not immediately try to build a powered airplane. They could not be sure that data obtained from tiny model wings would translate to a full-size aircraft. And they still had to solve the mysterious control problems that surfaced during the 1901 glider trials.

Rather than risk life and limb on a large, heavy, untried powered flying machine, Wilbur and Orville decided to build one more glider.

1903: The First Successful Airplane

1903 marks the year that the Wright brothers invented the first successful airplane.

Buoyant over the success of their 1902 glider, the Wright brothers were no longer content to merely add to the growing body of aeronautical knowledge; they were going to invent the airplane. Still, they recognized that much hard work lay ahead, especially the creation of a propulsion system. During the spring and summer of 1903, they were consumed with leaping that final hurdle into history.

On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft. The Wright brothers had invented the first successful airplane.

1904: The First Circular Flight

While the Wrights had achieved powered flight, they had not yet created a practical airplane.

On January 5, 1904, the Wright brothers made a statement to the Associated Press regarding their Kitty Hawk flights. They gave an account of the events, and then in closing affirmed that they had achieved their goal: “We packed our goods and returned home, knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last.”

However, the 1903 Flyer had only performed short, straight-line flights. To successfully market their invention, they had to demonstrate that it could turn and fly over more commonplace terrain than the sandy open spaces of Kitty Hawk. With this goal in mind, Wilbur and Orville refined their design with two more powered aircraft in 1904 and 1905.

1905: The First Practical Airplane

By the Fall of 1905, the Wright Brothers’ experimental period ended.

By the fall of 1905, the Wright brothers’ experimental period ended. With their third powered airplane, they now routinely made flights of several minutes. On October 5, Wilbur made a spectacular flight in which he circled the field 30 times in 39 minutes for a total distance of 24 1/2 miles.

In every sense, the Wrights now had a practical airplane. They turned their attention to securing their patent and seeking a customer for their invention.

They would not fly again for 2 1/2 years.The 1905 Wright Flyer is on display at Carillon Historical Park, Dayton. The 1904 Flyer does not survive.

The Aerial Age Begins

he decade after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903 witnessed a wide range of reactions to the new technology. Human flight was so significant and revolutionary a breakthrough that its influence went well beyond the aeronautical community.

The airplane had meaning for everyone—from popular enthusiasm for the pilots and their aerial exhibitions, to the commercial and military potential of aviation, to the broad cultural implications of flight, to the artistic expression it inspired.

The impact of the airplane on the 20th century is beyond measure. The Wrights not only solved a long-studied technical problem, but also helped create an entirely new world. Speculation on what that world would be like began with our first tentative leaps into the air.

1902-1907: Healthy Competition

After perfecting their aircraft in 1905, the Wright brothers did not fly at all in 1906 and 1907.

Instead, the Wrights turned their attention to securing their patent and finding customers for their invention.

However, in 1906 and 1907, several Europeans made short, straight-line flights of comparable length to the Wrights’ first powered flights. In North America, some notable successes were achieved by the Aerial Experiment Association. Formed by famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell in 1907, the A.E.A. built several powered aircraft, including the first airplane to fly in Canada, in 1909. The group included Glenn H. Curtiss, who went on to become the leading producer of aircraft in the United States before World War I.

Aeronautical activity picked up significantly during the Wrights’ flying hiatus of 1906–07, but no one came close to matching the brothers’ flight performance of 24 1/2 miles at Huffman Prairie in October 1905.

1908: Fliers or Liars?

The Wright brothers received their patent and began to share their invention with the world.

While the Wright brothers were negotiating the sale of their aircraft, they let no one witness a flight or even see the airplane until they had a signed contract in hand. By the spring of 1908, the Wright brothers’ had received their patent in America and in several European countries. They had contracts with the U.S. government and a French syndicate of financiers. They were finally ready to share their invention with the world.

There was little press coverage of the Wrights’ breakthrough flights in 1903, and they made no effort to publicize their flights at Huffman Prairie in 1904 and 1905. Now, facing what they perceived as a growing public relations crisis in light of the acclaim being showered upon other aviators, the Wrights began a campaign to set the public straight on what they had accomplished.

1908: Demonstrations in Europe

In August Wilbur made the first public flights of the Wright airplane in France and instantly dispelled all doubt. The Wrights became world celebrities overnight. French aviator Léon Delagrange summed up the matter succinctly: “Nous sommes battus.” (We are beaten.)

The Wrights in Europe

Beginning in 1908, the Wrights demonstrated their aircraft in Europe. In this photo Wilbur makes an adjustment to the airplane, with Orville looking on.

Wilbur Wright arrived in France in May 1908. Over the next year, he made more than 200 flights in Europe, dazzling crowds whenever he took to the air and turning critics into admirers. He became a hero lavished with praise, honored at ceremonial dinners with political leaders and the aeronautical elite, and the recipient of numerous prizes and medals, including the Legion of Honor.

Italy and Germany

A refinement of the 1905 Flyer, the Wright Model A was flown on demonstration flights in Europe in 1908 and 1909.

The Wrights’ European tour continued in Italy. Wilbur trained Italian military pilots, and the first motion picture footage taken from an airplane in flight was filmed there.

After completing flight trials for a U.S. Army contract in America in July 1909, Orville briefly returned with Katharine to Europe to demonstrate the airplane and to train pilots in connection with a contract for license-built Wright aircraft in Germany.

1909: Homecoming Celebration

America celebrated when the Wrights returned in May 1909.

 When the Wrights returned to America in May 1909, they were greeted with the same attention and adulation that had followed them across Europe. They considered all the public appearances, awards, and celebrations a distraction and made it known that they preferred to quietly get back to work. They would have no say in the matter, however. America would not be denied honoring the nation’s new favorite sons.

Dayton Welcomes the Wrights Home

The grandest welcome for the brothers was the Wright Brothers’ Home Days Celebration in Dayton, Ohio, on June 17–18, 1909. There were receptions, parades, concerts, and fireworks. Wilbur and Orville accepted medals from the U.S. Congress, the state, and the city. Scores of elementary school children clad in red, white, and blue made up a “living flag” chorus that closed the ceremony with a song.

1910: The Wright Company

The Wright brothers offered their first airplane type, the Wright Model B, in 1910.

Balloons had been used for observation during the American Civil War and in several late 19th-century European conflicts. The airplane offered a natural extension of these reconnaissance capabilities. During the 20th century, the military proved to be the largest market for aeronautical technology.

World War I was the first great impetus to manufacture aircraft, and the later development of commercial cargo and passenger air transport provided the other principal customer for aircraft builders. The aerospace industry ultimately became a pillar of the world economy.

The Wright Company produced a variety of designs until Orville sold the firm and retired from aviation in 1915, three years after Wilbur’s premature death.

1912: Wilbur Dies of Typhoid

After the brothers formed the Wright Company and began manufacturing airplanes for sale in 1910, Wilbur became preoccupied with tending to the many patent infringement suits the Wrights filed. It was as much a matter of principle as money.

The Wrights believed their invention was uniquely their own and revolutionary, and that they should be duly credited and compensated for their contribution to the world.

Tired and stressed from the burden of litigation, Wilbur contracted typhoid fever in April 1912. He succumbed on May 30. He was only 45 years old.

“A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died.” – From Bishop Milton Wright’s diary, May 30, 1912

1910-1914: High Flying Times

As the world embraced aviation, it did not take long for the airplane to become part of popular culture.

Flight motifs began to appear on jewelry, clocks, games, decorative boxes, postcards, and the like.

The airplane had important cultural implications from the moment it appeared. Artists, writers, and composers found powerful inspiration in aviation. For them the invention of mechanical flight was an aesthetic event, which they believed would have great influence on the new century’s artistic, even moral, direction.

The invention of the airplane coincided with the advent of several of the 20th century’s defining artistic and intellectual movements. Flight was perhaps the ultimate signal that a new, modern age had begun.

1932: Memorial at Kitty Hawk

During the 1920s and 1930s, memorial statues sprang up nearly everywhere the Wrights had worked or flown.

The grandest is a 60-foot granite shaft, with feathered wings sculpted into the sides, erected at Kitty Hawk and dedicated in 1932.

“In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. Conceived by genius. Achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.” – Inscription on the Wright memorial at Kitty Hawk

1948 – Orville Dies of a Heart Attack

Orville lived his later life as the elder statesman of aviation and folk hero.  He died of heart attack in 1948.

 Orville sold his interest in the Wright Company in 1915 and settled into the role of aviation elder statesman and national folk hero. He spent much of the remaining 33 years of his life upholding the reputation he and Wilbur had earned.

In 1916 Orville finally gave up the lease on the modest bicycle shop in which he and Wilbur did their pioneering aeronautical work and moved into a new laboratory he had built nearby. He served on many government aeronautical boards and commissions and was a consultant with several private aircraft companies. He received 11 honorary degrees from universities in Europe and the United States, as well as dozens of medals and awards.

Orville suffered his second heart attack in four months on January 27, 1948, and died three days later at the age of 76.